Arts Malnutrition

Growing up, we awaited the grand entrance of our art teacher’s magical cart. Into the class it would roll. The assortment of pencils in cans, rainbows of papers stacked up high, watercolors nestled in the corners, they all seemed like a Willie Wonka’s factory of colorful possibilities.

“Art from the Cart” was what the art teacher called it.

Art projects could be completed on our desks that faced the front in neat, alphabetical rows.


During most classroom time, except for those magical art class moments of coloring, folding and sliding that brush across the paper, we were called upon to sit with our hands neatly folded, unless they were filling out worksheets.

Marching in straight, silent lines, we also had the chance to visit the music room once a week to sing and beat on the bongos.

Our music teacher had a conductor’s baton that curved through the air as she lead us in songs. One time, she even let us sing “The Sound of Silence” that we thought was as thrilling as a sneaky, unscheduled recess.

My small town, public elementary school was anything but arty and progressive. The beloved principal had a crew cut and stood at the door to shake our hands hello and wave us farewell in the afternoon. We sported seventies fashion like fringed plaid vests and rust colored corduroys. Except for our wardrobes, we had few opportunities aside from our music and art classes to express ourselves.

This year, I taught over 480 public school elementary school students about nutrition in four schools in impoverished neighborhoods in Harlem, Crown Heights and the South Bronx. The kids were as eager to learn and sharp as those students I taught at a $45,000 a year private school in Manhattan or at the American International School of Budapest that catered to the progeny of the wealthy.

All of my 480 students spent the majority of their days preparing for state and city tests by taking graded pre-tests, filling out endless sheets and suffering through the actual tests that could determine if their teachers get fired or rehired. My students do not study social studies or science because those subjects are not tested.

To be clear, this is test prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the year. How deadening to the mind and the soul!

None of my students had art or music teachers. None of them.

One principal described how students pour into the nurse’s office complaining of head and stomach aches in the days leading up to the tests. The principal became emotional as she talked about her students breaking down in tears and begging to go home during the dreadful two weeks of testing each spring.

Teachers pressure their students so intensely because their jobs are on the line if the students do not demonstrate progress with improved scores every single year.

Billions of dollars are spent on testing and there’s no time or money left for the arts.

This is testing instead of teaching. Public education has been replaced with a relentless focus on the useless skill of how to fill in A, B, C or D on the test. Creativity is not valued. Get it right, or you are wrong.

What is the purpose? To prepare our young people for simple factory jobs, the kind that no longer exist in our country?

It seems like our current education system has been designed by faceless bureaucrats who know nothing about the value of instilling the expressive arts into life. Even the Soviet Union had an extensive arts program in schools.

What are the goals of these test-obsessed leaders? One thing I’m sure of is that none of their own children attend schools with no arts programs. By eliminating arts from schools, these policymakers have demonstrated their hatred for poor children. 

Arts education advances our thinking in all subject areas. The arts are our conduit for recognizing, enjoying and creating beauty as well as fostering individual expression.

The arts make life worth living. But the arts are now a privilege that belong only to the wealthy. All other children live without the arts.

In the classrooms of my students, the only paper they see is lined paper. Many of them had no access to even white paper. No markers, paints or colored paper could ever be found.

The few times I brought in colored pencils and paper to do art projects, the students lit up with excitement and asked if they were allowed to keep what they created. Our society’s talented sweeties who have the misfortune of being born poor are suffering from arts malnutrition.